While we've expressed our displeasure with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on many occasions, we do believe his intention to amend federal sentencing guidelines for some drug-related crimes has merit.
According to the Associated Press, in remarks presented Monday to the American Bar Association, Holder advocated diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug-treatment and community-service programs.
Specifically, Holder would alter Justice Department policy so that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels wouldn't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences. A product of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentences limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison terms.
This new initiative aims to make sure those convicted of drug-related offenses receive sentences befitting the crime, which would help ease the excessive overcrowding at our federal prisons.
Those facilities currently operate at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates, half serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of these low-risk inmates are dealing with substance-abuse issues and might be better served in an alternative setting.
Holder said these new approaches are the result of a Justice Department review he launched earlier this year.
This new initiative has received congressional support from some disparate sources, including Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
In fact, some places that might not be associated with enlightened penal policy — Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas and Georgia — have joined 13 other states in directing money away from prison construction and toward programs and services, such as treatment and supervision, designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.
This in turn is expected to dramatically improve states' bottom lines. For example, Kentucky's community-supervision approach is projected to reduce its prison population by 3,000 in the next 10 years and save $400 million.
This approach also could be duplicated at the local and state levels for the up to 10 million prisoners who go through those facilities each year.
The final details have yet to be worked out, but we feel Holder's goals of providing more appropriate sentences for certain drug-related offenders and of offering nonprison treatment for drug-related disorders will help reduce overcrowding and enable the federal prison system to more effectively use the their resources.
It may not preclude the expansion of our prisons, but it's certainly a step in that direction.